Bernhard Fuchs, Almut, 2007, C-print, 12 5/8 x 12 3/4". From the series “Lot” (Fathom), 2007–17.

Bernhard Fuchs, Almut, 2007, C-print, 12 5/8 x 12 3/4". From the series “Lot” (Fathom), 2007–17.

Bernhard Fuchs

Robert Morat Galerie

Bernhard Fuchs, Almut, 2007, C-print, 12 5/8 x 12 3/4". From the series “Lot” (Fathom), 2007–17.

The photographs of Bernhard Fuchs are out of time, but not nostalgic. They are neither classicizing nor do they revisit a romanticized image of a glorious past. Rather, Fuchs displays a world apart, seemingly removed from contemporary concerns. This attitude already characterized the series of books this student of Bernd Becher has produced since the 1990s, each of which, often focusing on his home country of Austria, is dedicated to a single theme, such as landscape (Waldungen [2014]), farmyards (Höfe [2011]), and even cars (Autos—Fotografien [2006]). It was once again evident in the exhibition mounted in connection to the publication of his most recent book, Lot (Fathom [2018]), his third dedicated to portraiture (after Portrait Fotografien [2003] and Portraits [1996]). But whereas in the earlier books Fuchs depicted his subjects outdoors and at full length, so that we saw them interacting with their personal environment, in Lot he seems more cautious, more careful not to invade his sitters’ private sphere.

To that end, the new series is based on a set of formal decisions, designed to put his subjects at ease while keeping viewers at a respectful remove. Fuchs uses only natural light and takes the pictures in the homes of his sitters, omitting any personal information by placing them in front of an indistinct, evenly illuminated background that allows for no dramatic shadows. Another distancing factor is that Fuchs displays the sitters at more than bust length, so that while they are not reduced to the head, we don’t see what they are doing with their hands. The point of view is at eye level, creating a sense of intimacy, yet Fuchs’s medium-format camera includes empty space on both sides and thus creates some distance. Even the dimensions of the portraits, which measure about twelve and one-half by twelve and three-quarters inches, contribute to this balance. Smaller than life yet large enough to lend the sitters physical presence, they make their subjects relatable while simultaneously keeping them in their own realm. In general, Fuchs tells us as little as possible about them. The titles give only their first names, and he shows them without attributes that might have provided clues as to profession, interests, religion, nationality, etc. We are saved from speculating and projecting and instead are left with their appearance alone.

Yet Fuchs’s portraits tell their own silent story. Of both genders and all ages, the sitters present themselves in a variety of poses. While they are evidently aware of being photographed, they hardly seem to act for the camera. In fact, nobody even smiles or offers any kind of readable facial expression, which lends these portraits an air of seriousness and solemn concentration. These sitters are as far removed as possible from our narcissistic selfie culture, our present-day obsession with self-fashioning and becoming an image. Their clothing corresponds to this striking absence of self-awareness. Almost every sitter is casually dressed and seems to pay little attention to fashion—even Hans, who, with his long braid, beard, and carefully trimmed eyebrows, might be stylish but is not fashionable. These people do not perform for an audience; they simply are. Fuchs’s unintrusive approach respects their apparent desire for privacy, but one also wonders whether it is his pictures that generate this impression or whether it is the portrayed who demand a space to themselves. But the form engenders the content, and the sense these images convey of their subjects’ reserve might simply reflect their own (and Fuchs’s too, for that matter).

Benjamin Paul